February 27, 2007

The Samurai


The history of Japan told from the perspective of the samurai. A well-made History Channel documentary.

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February 22, 2007

Cheese! (part 3)


"R-18" is the equivalent in Japan (and Great Britain) of the MPAA NC-17 rating. It's also the title of a silly and rather mindlessly entertaining manga series by (the sadly late) Emiko Sugi (not available in English, alas). It's Cheese! at its dumb, comedic best, with an equal share of both laugh-out-loud and eye-rolling moments.

Riko, a high school student with aspirations of becoming a professional writer, gets corralled by her aunt (a magazine editor) into writing "Love Report," an explicit "first person" sex & relationships column for a popular girl's teen magazine. The column, pseudonymously signed with the initial "R," becomes a hit. The thing is, 1) Riko's never had a boyfriend; and 2) everything she knows about sex she got from a book (and the occasional illicit video).

Naturally, she then meets a boy (Minato) who figures out her secret and the hijinks begin. To make things worse, Minato turns out to be a celebrated writer in his own right, just having won a prestigious literary prize (this is not that big of a stretch--these types of writing awards, especially for first-time authors, are popular in Japan, much like rookie-of-the-year awards in sports).

Because R-18 starts out as pretty much a one-joke comedy, a lot of sitcom-type logic is hauled out to stave off consummation of the relationship. Though as I've pointed out previously, the big difference between a shoujo sex comedy and a shounen "fan service" comedy is that Riko and Minato are actually trying. And Riko's Walter Mitty-ish imagination amplifies all possible implications and outcomes of every encounter ten-fold. (That's what makes it a Cheese! title.)

The setup reminds me of a book I read a zillion years ago called The Kid who Batted 1.000. The joke is, the kid doesn't actually get a hit every time at bat. Rather, he has an uncanny ability to foul off any strike across the plate and always gets walked as a result. Finally, in the big game, he hits a long ball that just barely lands fair. Hence, a 1.000 batting average. It's a cute gimmick, though like all gimmicks it has a finite half-life.

To be sure, Japanese Y/A literature still taps into extant currents of tradition and conservatism in order to stave off consummation of teen relationships for dramatic purposes. My own informal survey of the material suggests that while American Y/A dramas (and much breathless prime-time news reportage) tend to depict teens as insatiable lustbunnies, their dramatic Japanese counterparts go strongly in the opposite direction.

One of my favorite prime-time Japanese sitcom/soaps is Brother Beat, about three brothers living with their spunky, widowed mom. The s-l-o-w-l-y developing romance between the eldest son--in his late twenties--and the cute new hire at the supermarket where his mom works is the kind of thing you'd expect from a pair of thirteen-year-olds. It requires enormous self-control to keep from yelling at the screen: KISS HER ALREADY!

Anyway, transferring the plot of R-18 to an American setting, it would get increasingly difficult to explain Riko's tortured "innocence," as Riko's behavior isn't motivated so much by morality as by personality and 2000 years of culture--as noted above, Japanese Y/A writers get incredible--frankly sometimes unendurable--mileage out of the near-clinical reticence of their protagonists. Explains Roland Kelts in JapanAmerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.,

[T]he strict codes of etiquette and behavior that govern daily life in Japan also allow for an extraordinary degree of creative and social permissiveness, the freedom to explore other identities, to test the limits of possibility.

The pre-MPAA Hollywood screwball comedy failed to transition to the post-MPAA sex comedy for the same reason. With rare exceptions, once those codes of conduct disappeared, so did the essential tension out of which comedy springs. Or rather, the comedic material had to keep sinking until it found a baseline of human behavior to push back against, a baseline that too often proved lower than what mature audiences had any stomach for.

These codes are alive and well in large swathes of American culture, which is why a conservative Christian setting for R-18 would work even better. Say, if Riko were an overachieving English major at my alma mater, Brigham Young University. The distance between her pseudonymous personality and herself--and the moral and social stakes involved--and the constant rationalizations she indulges in--would be all the greater.

Kelts's insight, I believe, is that Japanese pop culture succeeds to the extent that it carves out niches within the its culture and pushes those to the limits, not by violating its tenants or offending its practitioners, as is so often the case in Western (post) modern art. Or rather, it only transgresses as advertised. Readers who buy Blaze or Cheese! publications know exactly what they are going to get, what boundaries are going to be pushed.

In fact, there could be a kind of aesthetic law of thermodynamics at work here: at the end of the day, license and licentiousness have to balance out, and by taking less of the former, the artist is allowed more of the latter.

(ISBNs reviewed: 4091300588, 4091300944, 4091301657, 4091302378.)

UPDATE: more Cheese! here and here.

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February 15, 2007

Cheese! (part 2)


I've discussed the subject at length here and here, but the kind of stories found in Cheese! (and for that matter, the typical Harlequin romance) highlight the curious differences shounen (boy's) and shoujo (girl's) manga and anime, especially in the ways they treat intimate relationships and the social implications of sex.

This is unrelated to any differences in explicitness. Like shoujo, when called for--to the extent that such things are ever "called for"--shounen manga and anime do not lack for gratuitous nudity and sexual innuendo. It's so ubiquitous that it's referred to by the derisive moniker, "fan service." But the irony about all this sexuality is how rarely actual physical relationships inject themselves into the narrative engines of shounen plots, other than as come-ons to the male id.

Or rather, how often the mere prospect of sex sends the id scurrying. It's a bait and switch gambit.

Even in fan-service fests like Ikki Tousen and Tenjho Tenge, where all of the secondary characters are sleeping around (exception noted below), the leads restrain themselves. In classic Friday the 13th fashion, promiscuity becomes a shorthand indication of moral decrepitude. Consider the ridiculous Girl's Bravo, where the town lecher Fukuyama makes all the sleazy moves while Yukinari plays the perfect gentleman, even when a voluptuous, naked babe materializes in his bathtub.

Three notable exceptions stand out: Bob and Chiaki in Tenjho Tenge, Saki and Makoto in Genshiken, and Seiji and Midori in Midori Days. In the first, Bob is a sidekick and Chiaki a secondary character. More importantly, the Bob and Chiaki relationship is presented as an established fact at the beginning of the series. Still, although tangential to the main storyline, it's the only interesting--and certainly the only mature--boy/girl relationship in the entire show.

In Genshiken, Saki is a "normal" girl who's fallen for Makoto, a hardcore member of Genshiken, the university anime and video game club. They're sharing a bed almost from the start (which is unusual enough), and are more or less making the relationship work, though encountering some expected obstacles in the process, as in a scene where Saki wonders aloud whether the sex life of a certain "hypothetical" couple is dictated by the broadcast schedule of a popular anime series.

There is a serious question whether Genshiken--which also makes it clear (though not cruelly) that the other club members lack significant others pretty because of their obsessive personalities--belongs in the shounen genre. Comic Party, for example, covers similar territory but follows every shounen story element to the letter, including the can't-get-to-first-base relationship between the leads.

Otherwise, shounen writers often resort to plot devices straight out of fantasy horror (of all things!) to keep the boy glued to the girl's side.

In Video Girl Ai, Ai pulls a reverse Poltergeist and oozes out of Youta's television screen. In Midori Days, Seiji wakes up one morning to find that a girl has replaced his right hand (flashback to Bruce Campbell replacing his severed hand with a chainsaw in Army of Darkness). The mad scientist in B-Shock forces Arata and Hatsune together with a kind of deadly proximity device, echoing a similar plot entwining Picard and Crusher in an episode of Star Trek: TNG.

Strangely enough--or not, when you think about it--these premises actually deliver a more mature level of plot and character development. Midori Days in particular. When "Mad Dog" Seiji finds that his right hand has been replaced by a doll-sized girl, a rather obvious crude joke springs to mind. But it doesn't go there. Instead, it addresses the practical issues of actually living together--in the literal sense of the word--forcing a guy accustomed to favoring brawn over brain to finally grow up and take responsibility for his actions.

However, with the goal of comparing fruits of a similar species, I'm more specifically interested in shounen titles that like their shoujo counterparts depict long-term, committed, and more or less voluntary male/female relationships, where the leads ostensibly want to get together and stay together. While sex may seem to be used to competing ends in the shounen and shoujo genres, I would argue that the same underlying theory is at play in both.

And that is: sex equals big-time commitment.

Consider the opposite: the stock, noncommital "player" in Hollywood sitcoms. The current television season (and a single network!) alone supplies us with Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men, Daniel Patrick Harris in How I Met Your Mother, and David Spade in Rules of Engagement. But unlike the borrish Fukuyama in Girl's Bravo or the gangbangers in Ikki Tousen, they're all lovable scoundrels.

There's a lot more where they came from, not to mention the interminable on-again, off-again ditherings between Ross and Rachel on Friends that lasted the entire run of the show. On the other hand, the Chandler and Monica marriage hardly starved the series for material, and a more inspired handling of the Anya and Xander debacle on Buffy likewise would have injected much needed life into the series, badly flagging at that point.

But in these cases we're specifically talking about marriage. Hollywood is reflecting more than a grain of truth about the male psyche. What is unique about shounen manga is the extent to which sexual intimacy (and not even necessarily consummation) by itself is used as a proxy for commitment and marriage, following exactly the same formulation as that used by shoujo and Harlequin authors.

This makes the Hollywood man the odd man out. Though at the other end of the spectrum, it also makes the restrained shounen protagonist as utterly unreal as the tall, dark, handsome, rougish Harlequin leading man who sweeps a woman off her feet and abruptly settles down with her in marital bliss without breaking his stride.

Take two quintessential shounen relationship series as cases in point: Ah My Goddess and Ai Yori Yoshi. In both, men (they're in college, after all) are in long-term, committed relationships with bright, gorgeous women who adore them. And yet. Only subterfuge or stupidity ever lands them in a compromising position of any sort.

Far from providing fodder for ongoing plots, the eternally-stalled romantic relationship between the leads becomes tedious. Their characters are similarly frozen in amber. The best episode in the 2005 anime remake of Ah My Goddess has Urd (Belldandy's older, randier sister) being turned back into a schoolgirl for a day and initiating a relationship that progresses further in 24 minutes than anything Belldandy and Keiichi had done to date--without Urd twisting arms, that is.

The subtext about sex in shounen manga seemly plainly to be: look but don't touch; imagine but don't act.

You could even call it "chivalrous," albeit in a weirdly objectifying manner. But perhaps herein is revealed the substance of the paradox that Japanese cabinet ministers need to specifically address, rather than describing women as "baby-making machines" who aren't meeting their production quotas.

Welfare minister Hakuo Yanagisawa was responsible for that last indelicate quote. Deflecting calls for Yanagisawa's resignation, Prime Minister Abe valiantly vowed to deal with the declining birthrate by creating

a Japan where people feel at ease to get married and raise their children under a basic strategy of assisting children and families.

Strangely enough, as I argue here, shounen manga and anime are not necessarily antagonistic to "family values." When push comes to shove, it seems that what too many shounen protagonists really want is a sibling, not a spouse. The brave new frontier in Japanese popular entertainment may well be a non-hentai shounen genre in which the romantic leads shack up, get married, life goes on and the world doesn't end in an apocalyptic fireball.

Though if that's exactly the prospect that so frightens teenage boys in the first place, it's doubtful they'd ever accord it the requisite devotion to inculcate the message.

UPDATE: more Cheese! here and here.

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February 11, 2007

Cheese! (part 1)


My escapist literature of choice these days comes from the Flower Comics Cheese! imprint, especially "short story" anthologies by Kayono (no last name).

Her tankonbon anthologies (she does serials as well) each contain several stand-alone stories. Flower Comics, a division of publishing giant Shogakukan, is an established shoujo manga publisher that targets the same demographic as magazines like Seventeen and YM.

In terms of narrative structure, her stories follow a predicable outline: 1) girl meets boy under unusual circumstances; 2) in the midst of negotiating said circumstances, girl and boy girl fall in love; 3) girl and boy toss off their clothes and jump into bed; 4) they live happily ever after. (Steps 1, 2, and 3 do not necessary occur in that order.)

Well, most stories ever told follow a predicable outline and romances all the more so. The unique contribution of the author, then, is the ability to tell the same story only different. Kayono is particularly inventive in this regard, especially with supernatural themes.

The titular story in Rei Kai Bi Dan has a rogue angel (roguish male protagonists also being de rigueur) stealing a magical gem from God and then hiding it on--literally on--a girl he runs into while on the run.

He then has to do some meticulous searching (see step 3) to get it back. The story is clever and romantic, with tragedy averted and, yes, ending happily ever after. Kayono doesn't hit a home run every time, but the beauty of this format is that you're not stuck with lackluster stories. Unfortunately, as with Rei Kai Bi Dan, you don't see more of the characters you would like to follow around longer.

Kayono's skills as a pen-and-ink artist stand out as well. I really like her "neo-real" approach--completely idealized but still representing real human beings with full faces and rounded edges--as opposed to the David Bowie "Thin White Duke" designs once favored by CLAMP (though they seem to have abandoned it), and that has become, for some strange reason, the hallmark of yaoi.

The main contribution of the Cheese! editorial policy to the genre is the requirement that step 3 be depicted with a luscious, baroque, R-rated explicitness. The illustrations are tasteful, to be sure, and nothing approaching actual hentai. But the imprint is called Cheese! for a purpose (somebody at the company has a cute sense of humor). A good comparison in this regard is Harlequin Blaze.

To quote from the Blaze editorial guidelines:

The tone of the books can run from fun and flirtatious to dark and sensual. Writers can push the boundaries in terms of characterization, plot and explicitness . . . . We want to see an emphasis on the physical relationship developing between the couple: fully described love scenes along with a high level of fantasy, playfulness and eroticism are needed.

Just add pictures and you've got Cheese!

(A big hat tip to Emily at her Random Shoujo Manga Page, a great introduction to the genre. ISBNs reviewed: 4091381413, 409138143X, 4091381421, 4091381448.)

UPDATE: more Cheese! here and here.

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February 08, 2007

Face masks and the flu


As part of a University of Michigan study, "Researchers are trying to determine whether wearing surgical masks and hand sanitizing can prevent the spread of flu or other respiratory illnesses."

The Japanese have been doing this for decades. Not the hand sanitizer part, the surgical masks. I recall a National Geographic photo caption from an article about air pollution a while back explaining that the Tokyoite depicted was wearing a mast because of the smog. Well, the air quality may have indeed been bad back then, but that wasn't the reason for the mask.

Contrary to the Michigan study, though, accepted practice is to wear a mask if you've got a cold, not to prevent one (though masks are used preventatively during allergy season). It's common courtesy, after all.

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February 07, 2007

Famous foreign face


What foreign face shows up the most on the news in Japan these days? I usually have NHK on the TV all afternoon, or at least for Good Morning, Japan. It's one of the better morning news show (imagine if Good Morning, America were produced by the PBS NewHours guys), though it comes on at 3:00 pm MST.

At least judging by the coverage on Good Morning, Japan, the answer is (by a landslide) . . . Christopher Hill. He's Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, repping the U.S. at the "Six Party Talks" with North Korea. Seriously, if Christopher Hill stops to tie his shoelaces, it makes the news.

And you think we're concerned about North Korea. As Tip O'Neill famously said, "All politics is local." Same for news coverage. Especially when Pyongyang is only about as far from Tokyo as Washington, D.C. is from Chicago.

Of course, since these types of international negotiations typically move at the speed of a lethargic turtle, the requisite "Christopher Hill" sound bite has turned into "meaninglessly reassuring diplomatic answer to meaninglessly redundant foreign correspondent question of the day."

But he's always very pleasant about it. Calm, well-spoken, to the point (when there is one), and, well, diplomatic. As far as public faces go, the U.S. government couldn't ask for a better one.

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